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Understanding our Impact on the Planet

This article was written by Alex Steffen in May 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

little%20prince.jpg Our friends over at Grist have published a sharp little essay by Michael Tobis called My little world (and yours, too). Essentially, Tobis takes the concept of ecological footprinting, and helps it make sense by asking us to imagine living on our own tiny little planet.

But to know why I think this is cool, you have to know a little about ecological footprints. Ecological footprints give us a metaphor for understanding our impact on the planet and the meaning of sustainability: they boil that impact down to a single number and measure it in terms of land area, often in terms of global hectares. They then compare the metaphorical land area used to provide you and I with our communities, homes and lifestyles with what a globally fair share of the planet actually is.

Ecogeeks seem to argue a lot about whose footprint measurements offer the most accuracy. Their questions are sometimes difficult to parse -- does the formula used incorporate the public-sector activity undertaken on our behalf? A thousand considerations bubble up, but I actually have a lot of confidence that the available formulae are pretty decent, and getting better.

Using those two numbers, our footprints and the footprint everyone could have without destroying our environment (often referred to as a one planet footprint), we can tell more or less how far off from sustainability we are. Generally, we find that if we living average lives in Europe, we need to shrink our footprints by 70 - 80%. If we're Americans that number is more like 90%. If we're wealthy, we may need to find even more hectares worth of ecological savings.

And here is where the metaphor goes screwy on us. I don't think in hectares, and I'd bet you don't either. I know that a hectare covers about the same area as two (American) football fields, and having spent a fair bit of my misspent youth on sports fields, I can more or less grasp how much real estate that is, but when it comes right down to it, lecturing me about hectares is like talking fashion with a dog.

Tobis takes a slightly different and pretty clever tack:

The Little Prince of the story is a child living alone on a small spherical asteroid, his only companion a single flower. He consoles himself by the fact that it is always a short walk to a sunrise or a sunset.
Let's tell a slightly different story, with a similar asteroid, a per-capita world. Instead of being one of six billion people on a big planet, let's suppose you were alone on a comparable asteroid. We'll give you your six-billionth share of the surface area, your six-billionth share of each of the major landmasses and biomes, your own six-billionth scale Africa, your own little Australia. In other words, you will have exactly the average resource ownership of everyone else on earth.

Now we're talking! Rampaging across my own little Earth like a super-sized Godzilla, that's something I can understand.

What's more, Tobis does a great job of taking us on a tour of our private planets:

Your little asteroid has a six-billionth of the earth's total surface area. It is a sphere with a radius of 82 meters, and with a surface area of about 85,000 square meters. That, depending on how you prefer to think about it, is almost exactly 21 acres, or 8.5 hectares. ...
Since the ocean covers fifteen acres, the land surface covers the remaining six acres. [T]he area under cultivation is ... a bit over a third of an acre. If you push matters to less valuable soil, you might be able to grow things on as much as an acre, but most of your 6 acres are desert or tundra. You even have some substantial ice sheets on your land. There is also the problem that you have built your house, your workshop, your garage, your driveway and many of your industrial outbuildings on the best farmland.
About a third of your land under cultivation is irrigated, much of it using depletable groundwater. Some of the groundwater is being contaminated by some of your industrial processes. To a lesser extent, your soils are also being contaminated, but a bigger problem is that as you till them for food they erode much faster than the natural rate of replenishment.
You also like to eat fish, but most of your ocean does not naturally support large fish. From the few areas that do, you have been eating the fish faster than they reproduce. This would astonish your great-grandparents, but of course they lived on a larger world. (Their per capita share was bigger with a smaller population.)

So, there we are, on our personal Earths, spinning around the planet, having a good time but making a bit of a mess of things. So far so good.

But then things start to go a little wrong. Tobis wisely informs us that our ancestors had larger personal Earths than we do because there were fewer of them on the planet -- but he neglects to mention another important reason why their personal planets were bigger than ours: they're the same planets, and they burned through a lot of real estate before we ever inherited them. You and I, for instance, don't have a sustainable share of time spent swimming with Chinese river dolphins, because there aren't any more. They're now extinct.

Indeed, if we do a little research (for instance, by reading WWF's Living Planet Report), we quickly realize that we have already dramatically disrupted over a third of the planet's ecosystems. Our personal planets are crumbling away, chunk after chunk flying out from under our feet and off into space.

And because our lives are so resource- and energy-intensive -- the average American would need his or her own personal planet and four other people's as well to feed his or her consumption -- we're breaking off bigger and bigger chunks every day. Every day that passes means our personal planets shrink a bit more.

What is to be done about this dire state of affairs? Pretty important question. And here, unfortunately, Tobis jumps a little wrong and goes hurtling off into space... because it is here that the metaphor of ecological footprints breaks down.

"There is no replacing your six acres, no frontier," Tobis tells us. "No amount of human ingenuity will make your world's surface bigger."


"Increasing wealth won't make your asteroid any bigger..." he says. "No matter how clever our advances, we will never have more than an acre to feed us."

And here the whole Matrix-world of the metaphor comes crashing down in shards of mental glass. For neither statement is true.

It is manifestly possible for us to increase the biological health and capacity of the planet -- not only to preserve what exists, but to add to it. Every time we practice ecological restoration -- even being as clumsy a set of practitioners of that art as we are -- we increase the vigor of a small patch of the Earth. There is absolutely no reason to suppose that we could not, eventually, get much wiser about restoring ecological function while we reduce our ecological impact, perhaps even eliminating our ecological footprints and beginning to leave instead ecological handprints where we have made the Earth healthier. We can rebuild the surface of our personal planets, replacing acres, perhaps even restoring acres lost before we were even born. It won't be easy, and we still need to fight like hell to preserve what we have, but all is not lost.

More importantly, Tobis' views on wealth and ingenuity fly far wide of the mark: while it is mostly true that we "will never have more than an acre to feed us" in the sense that there is a limited amount of tillable land in the world (though even there, I'd place bets that careful stewardship and agricultural innovation could restore much farmland now regarded as lost), it is false in that the yields that acre gives us can vary profoundly: clever advances can in fact offer us the same fruits of prosperity at a fraction of the footprint.

Many old-school environmentalists can't wrap their heads around this fact. Based on a combination of historical observation (industrial prosperity has so far increased ecological damage, so it must always -- a statement about as realistic as saying my niece has always, for the four years of her life, been less than three-and-a-half feet tall, therefore she will be always be a yardling) and a culturally inherited distaste for modernity (with, you know, its dark satanic mills and lack of bears), OSEs love to recite the PAT formula: that environmental impact is equal to the size of the population times its affluence times its technology.

But what we know now is that affluence is a complex concept, not (beyond the meeting of certain essential needs) easily bound to material consumption, because a great many of the things that make us prosperous are in fact intangible or offer ecologically negligible impact, including art, innovation and care.

What's more, through efficiency and redesign, a great many products and services can, in theory if not current practice, be offered at ecologically meaningless impacts. If I own a bright green car, say one that runs efficiently off electricity from wind turbines, is built of completely non-toxic components, is designed to be disassembled with its materials reused and recycled in a closed loop, and I travel 300 miles to visit grandma, I am doing so at a minute fraction of the footprint that Wally Waster has when he drives his Ford Earthcrusher SUV on a similar journey. Yes, for all practical purposes, I am just as prosperous.

Which is why the "T" part of the PAT equation is also dumb. Products which are more technologically advanced offer us far greater possibilities for efficiency and ecological sanity. Think, for instance, of the ways in which technology enables us to car share, or design smart green homes which most effectively use natural airflow and light.

If each of us has a personal planet, and on that planet sit miniature personal cars and homes, cities and factories, one of the most encouraging facts I know is that by sharing better ideas with one another and working together to innovate new solutions, we are actually capable of building prosperous lives which leave us living on what feel like much roomier asteroids.

Personal Planets and the Little Prince is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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